February 17, 2013

162017_132140396847214_292624_nIn its decision issued on February 14, 2013, the Supreme Court of Florida held that an arbitration provision in an otherwise valid contract binds the signing party’s estate and heirs in a subsequent wrongful death case, finding that the nature of wrongful death actions in Florida is derivative and therefore because the signing party’s estate and heirs are bound by defenses that could be raised in a personal injury suit brought by the decedent, as well as by releases signed by the decedent, it would be anomalous to conclude that they are not also bound by a choice of forum agreement signed by the decedent in a wrongful death action arising out of the treatment and care of the decedent.

The Underlying Facts

The nursing home resident died several days after he was admitted to the nursing home in May 2006 for rehabilitation after surgery. The personal representative of the resident’s estate filed a medical malpractice lawsuit (nursing home claim) seeking damages in excess of $15,000 against the nursing home and others. The nursing home malpractice lawsuit alleged that the defendants each deprived or infringed the resident’s statutory nursing home residents’ rights pursuant to the Florida Nursing Home Residents’ Rights Act (NHRRA), embodied in chapter 400, Florida Statutes (2008), and that each of the defendants was liable for wrongful death based on negligence.

The defendants filed a motion to compel arbitration based on an arbitration agreement signed by the resident on May 15, 2006 that was part of a packet of admissions paperwork that stated, in part: The Facility and the Resident and/or Resident’s Authorized Representative (hereinafter referred to collectively as the “Parties”) understand and agree that any legal dispute, controversy, demand, or claim where the damages or other amount in controversy is/are alleged to exceed ten thousand dollars ($10,000.00), and that arises out of or relates to the Resident Admission Agreement or is in any way connected to the Resident’s stay at the Facility shall be resolved exclusively by binding Arbitration; and not by a lawsuit or resort to other court process … This agreement to arbitrate shall include, but is not limited to, any claim based on . . . breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty, fraud or misrepresentation, common law or statutory negligence, gross negligence, malpractice or a claim based on any departure from accepted standards of medical or nursing care (collectively “Disputes”), where the damages or other amount in controversy is/are alleged to exceed ten thousand dollars ($10,000.00) … This agreement shall be binding upon, and shall include any claims brought by or against the Parties’ representatives, agents, heirs, assigns, employees, managers, directors, shareholders, management companies, parent companies, subsidiary companies or related or affiliated business entities.

The estate’s personal representative opposed arbitration in the wrongful death case, contending that the arbitration agreement was procedurally and substantively unconscionable and that the wrongful death claims were not arbitrable. The trial court found that the arbitration agreement was valid, that the claims brought by the personal representative were arbitrable issues, and that the beneficiaries of the estate were intended third-party beneficiaries of the agreement. The personal representative appealed, and the intermediate appeals court (Fifth District) affirmed the trial court’s order but also certified to the Florida Supreme Court the question of whether a nursing home arbitration agreement signed by a nursing home resident, or his or her representative, binds the resident’s estate and statutory heirs to arbitration in a subsequent wrongful death action arising from an alleged tort within the scope of an otherwise valid arbitration agreement.

The Florida Supreme Court determined that the arbitration agreement in this case expressly encompasses claims arising out of or relating to the resident’s stay at the facility, including negligence and malpractice, and is expressly binding upon and includes claims brought by the resident’s “heirs.” The Florida Supreme Court further found that as reflected in the terms of the arbitration agreement, it is clear that the contracting parties intended to include wrongful death claims such as those brought in this case.

The Florida Supreme Court next determined that the right of the survivors to recover is predicated in Florida’s Wrongful Death Act on the decedent’s right to recover (recovery is precluded if the decedent could not have maintained an action and recovered damages if death had not ensued). The Florida Supreme Court acknowledged that courts in other states are split when considering the question of whether the estate and heirs are bound by an arbitration agreement signed by the decedent, even in states with provisions similar to Florida that predicate a wrongful death claim on the ability of the decedent to have brought suit and recover damages had he or she lived.

The Florida Supreme Court also acknowledged that the measure of damages for a wrongful death cause of action under Florida law is different than for a personal injury claim that could have been brought by the decedent. However, the Florida Supreme Court concluded that the nature of a wrongful death cause of action in Florida is derivative in the context of determining whether a decedent’s estate and heirs are bound by the decedent’s agreement to arbitrate — the estate and heirs stand in the shoes of the decedent for purposes of whether the defendant is liable and are bound by the decedent’s actions and contracts with respect to defenses and releases. The Florida Supreme Court saw no reason that a different result is compelled for the decedent’s choice of forum, and it would be anomalous to give greater rights to the estate and heirs than to the decedent.

The Florida Supreme Court therefore concluded that the execution of a nursing home arbitration agreement by a party with the capacity to contract binds the decedent’s estate and statutory heirs in a subsequent wrongful death action arising from an alleged tort within the scope of an otherwise valid arbitration agreement.

Laizure v. Avante at Leesburg, Inc., et al. Case No. SC10-2132.

If you or a family member were injured (or worse) while a resident of a nursing home in Florida or in another U.S. state, you should promptly seek the advice of a Florida nursing home attorney (Florida medical malpractice attorney) or a nursing home attorney in your state to answer your questions and represent you in a nursing home/medical malpractice claim, if appropriate.

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